Trinity and mysticism in East and West

There is a famous statement by Pope St John Paul II (or JP2 to his homeys) that the Church must start to breathe with both her lungs once again — that is, East and West. I don’t know the original context of the statement, but it seems to emerge in discussions about the more ‘rational’ approach to the faith in the western tradition and the more ‘mystical’ approach in eastern Christianity. A false dichotomy, to be sure.

Nonetheless, as the chapter about St John of the Cross in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition shows, there are differences in the approach to mysticism found in East and West. Someone such as Vladimir Lossky would probably boil it down to the differences in our approach to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.

This may be part of it.

The problem with Lossky, however, is that the opening chapter of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church raises a sharp irreconcilability between the two traditions. He argues that our view of the Trinity is, in fact, false — but does so through a misreading of St Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of western Trinitarian thought.

And here lies my main thought.

Setting aside for the moment the vexed issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit, I think that we need each when we think about the Trinity, precisely because we are in certain respects different. Our foundation is, however, the same. As St Anselm writes:

Latins call these three things persons, Greeks substances. For as we Latins call the one substance in God three persons, so the Greeks call the one person three substances, they meaning here by substance the very same thing that we mean by person, and not differing from us in faith in any way. (On the Incarnation, ch. 16)

Yet if you read Latin Trinitarian theology, we often start with the unity of God — thus Anselm’s Monologion and Proslogion. Greek theology, on the other hand, often starts with the three Persons — thus St Gregory of Nyssa’s That There Are Not Three Gods. Lossky argues that our insistence on the divine unity posits a fourth hypostasis in the Trinity, a fourth thing that is the ground of being of the three Persons. However, and I forget the title of the book that brought this home to me (it was about Aquinas and Bonaventure’s triadology), what we really mean by that unity is all three persons at once. The unity is a conceptual articulation, not a substance of its own.

Rather than arguing us vs them in Trinitarian theology, East-West dialogue should FIRST acknowledge the incomprehensible and unapproachable mystery here. And then we should see what nuances we can gain from each other. And then, perhaps, we can start to breathe with both our lungs.

And as we breathe with both of these lungs, we will be reminded that the Trinity, the persons beyond personality who are a single God yet three persons, is bigger than any of our doctrinal statements (no matter how true those statements are). And so we will seek Him out in prayer and contemplation, questing after the Uncreated Light, the Beatific Vision, the grace of a meeting with God that is theosis.

But as long as we begin in a position of hostility, our ability to love each other will be hampered. And if we cannot love our brethren whom we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?

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John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)

Idolatry?

Back in 2005, when JP2 died, a lot of people had a lot of really nice things to say about him.  In response, an evangelical started circulating an e-mail full of nasty things about JP2 and the Church of Rome at large. This e-mail made its way to me, including a preface by a friend of a friend calling bowing to the Host ‘rank idolatry’ and said that, when the monstrance came out, he and his family

felt like Shadrack [sic], Meshack [sic] and Abednego, as most everybody bowed down around us and we remained standing there, sticking out like sore thumbs, in faithfulness to Christ and God’s 2nd Commandment.

Recently, I’ve been wondering if there’s not a way out of such a situation and if we may not find it profitable to form a synthesis of St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here), the ‘last’ Church Father of the East, and Martin Luther, Protestant Reformer.

John of Damascus on Holy Images

First, if you haven’t read St. John of Damascus, you really should. Now. Here’s the link.

John of Damascus speaks about veneration of the holy images rather than adoration. Veneration is the sort of thing you might do, for example, to an emperor, or a potentate, or a something like that. It is not what we would call, in current English usage, worship. Worship, or adoration, is reserved for God alone. Veneration can go around. It is a way of treating people or things with a special honour due to them.

When we kiss an icon or a cross, we are not adoring them. We are venerating them. In and of themselves, they are but

Idolatry?

wood, paint, metal — they are things crafted by human hands. The sort of thing that is here today and firewood tomorrow. An icon cannot talk to you. An icon cannot answer your prayers. However, by treating this physical objects that are here in front of us with a special honour, we are reminding ourselves of the greater honour due to the invisible God.

FACT: You cannot kiss Jesus. He is in Heaven.

FACT: You can kiss an icon of Jesus. It’s right in front of you.

Kissing these objects is a way of honouring Christ, whom, in an Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, you would kiss. Not full-out on the mouth or something, but on the hand or maybe the cheek, the former because He is the Great Teacher, the latter because He is our Brother.

Luther: ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’ (1523)

Martin Luther, in ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’ annihilates many points of view concerning the Lord’s Supper. Is means is, not signifies, not is a participation in. Thus, when our Lord and Saviour says, ‘This is My Body,’ and, ‘This is My Blood,’ He means just that. They are not symbols or signs thereof. They are not a participation therein.

Furthermore, the Body and Blood are there, but the sacrifice cannot be repeated, and the bread and wine are not destroyed. The text of Holy Scripture calls them bread and wine. While they must be Body and Blood, transubstantiation is merely Aristotle playing Sacramental theology. Finally, the action that takes place on the altar is not a sacrifice of Jesus. That only happened once.

FACT: You cannot touch Jesus. He is in Heaven.

FACT: You can eat Him. He is in the Sacrament of the Altar. It’s right in front of you.

If Christ’s life-giving ‘Body and Blood are truly present,’* then that little bit of Bread is His Body. While what matters most to Luther is the spiritual act of worship that goes on in our hearts, we are allowed to engage in physical acts of worship as well. Therefore, monstrances are allowed but not necessary.

Synthesis?

Now, not everyone believes in the Real Presence. These people are wrong. However, they exist, and they love Jesus.

If John of Damascus is right, we can kiss an icon or a cross or a book of the Gospels and do so out of honour and love for the immortal, invisible God only wise. Our physical acts are in front of physical objects, but our hearts are turned to the metaphysical divinity, worshipping Him in spirit and in truth.

If we consider this along with Luther’s contention that monstrances — Host-holders — are indifferent, then there is no

This is a monstrance

reason why anyone who believes in the Real Presence or not need feel uncomfortable. Right? You are not bowing to a piece of Bread. You are bowing to the living, dynamic Christ Who is in your very midst, Who is glorious beyond compare, Who can see into your heart.

What matters is the inward person and the intention thereof. The Host is bowed to not because we think a bit of stale, circular bread is special but because we think that the living, risen Christ is superspecial, beyond special, holy, magnificent, majestic, glorious, all-powerful, worthy of all praise and all honour.

Part 2: What this means for me, and where on earth I’m going.

*’Corpus et sanguis vere adsint’ — Augsburg Confession, Article 10.